Amphitheatre Buttress has been on my tick list since I started climbing over a decade ago. Like most of us it's a mandatory day out for all aspiring and competent mountaineers alike, a classic route with an air of history and sense of nostalgia, the perfect ingredients for a vintage day out.
With a first ascent recorded back in May 1905 by a very distinguished party that included Puttrell, Leighton and the Abraham Brothers. Clad in tweed, hobnail boots, hemp rope and without doubt the obligatory picnic basket! We were not planning on being that authentic but armed with ready meals, sandwiches, Jetboil and an array of snacks we planned to do justice to a 1900s picnic basket.
As always the planning of the climb starts with picking the date, once that's sorted I usually leave it to my climbing buddy to devour snippets of information and come up with a lose plan of action. While doing the research on Craig yr Ysfa the target crag for the Amphitheatre, I received a text saying that the epic classic of Great Gully is on the same crag and as it's a Classic Rock tick from the Ken Wilson Bible, it would be a shame to not tick it while in the area....
I'll pack my head torch and water proofs then! I mentioned to the wife as Scott had said to Oats on the doomed South Pole expedition "I am just going outside and may be some time" such was the reputation of this immortal gully! With the date set for Wednesday late May, I was pleased to hear the Sunday forecast that the high pressure was here for the week and we could plan for a sunny, windless day. After all the Spring rain this year it was a welcome treat.
A couple of hours driving had us sat in the Campsite of Gwern Gof Isaf just off the A5 a few miles west of Capel Curig. It's a couple of quid to park there for the day and with a few farmyard dogs and hens it beats being at the mercy of the roadside bandits.
We'd elected to bring the mountain bikes as there is an access road up to Ffynnon Llugwy Reservoir, not so much for the ride in as the road is steep especially sporting a heavy rucksack, but for the ride out, which on tired legs would be the preferred option. The sun was already hot biking up to the reservoir and I drank a litre of water in the first 45 minutes. This was going to be a hot one and if we were to last the day then we needed to pace ourselves and make sure we keep well hydrated.
Once we had padlocked the bikes together behind a boulder and out of sight from the road, we donned walking poles and headed off North parallel to the reservoir, the path is vague and wet at first but it soon becomes dry and the path is then clearly trodden. In was really hotting up now and with full pack I was drenched with sweat. I'd tried to pack as light as possible but somehow it always feels heavy, it didn't help with all the fluids we would need for the full day. Paul left a litre at the bikes knowing that we would be short of fluids on the return.
The gentle path soon ends and its a short, sharp slog to the top of the col. The path has been heavily retained and rebuilt and although steep its rather pleasant, I was really enjoying being out in the glorious sunshine that almost felt strange from one of the wettest few weeks I can remember!
Once at the top and refreshed with a water break I eyed up the path down to the start of the climb. Paul was only a few minutes behind me and once both at the top we set off to the toe of the buttress to locate the climb, it was a pleasure to be going downhill after the slog up and an excitement began to build at the thought of starting the climb.
The path down to the toe of Amphitheatre Buttress is quite steep in places and it pays to go down a fair way before traversing leftwards. Once we located the climb it was time for a rest and brew, it wasn't long before the Jet boil was steaming away and we had started replenishing our energy levels with a few snacks. We elected to leave our sacks at the bottom and tackle the buttress Alpine style, light and moving together, we took a small bottle of water each hooked on to our harnesses along with approach shoes for the trek back down. My buddy was kind enough to give me the lead and I set off looking forward to nearly 300 meters of climbing.
The first 120 meters were delightful and it was safe enough to move together with little gear, just an occasional sling here and there. At the large platform where the wall steepens and the corner awaits, I waited for Paul to catch me up. This was the crux and wanted a short rope in case I popped off one of the polished holds. It was an entertaining pitch and as long as you move with confidence the holds are all there. Another 60 odd meters meters bought me to the ridge and the gendarmes where I paused to look at a few climbers down in the Gully.
Once Paul caught up, I stopped to take a few photographs and my buddy elected to do some planking! You can just see the other climbers down to the bottom left of the photo.
After taking the gendarmes a-cheval, head off slightly right and another 50 meters see's you on the top of the ridge. Its a climb I will do again in the future and one I would happily solo in these dry conditions. The scramble back down the gully was awful and there is a lot of loose rock and steep little drops, care should be taken here. We were back down to the sacks in less than 2 hours, it actually took us longer to get down than it did going up. It was now 13:00 hours and we decided to get fully charged with a few brews and our picnic before we tackled Great Gully.
Replenished and rested we headed rightwards to locate the Gully. Once in the Gully proper we plodded on up the wet grassy bed and over a few minor obstacles but nothing requiring anything more than a brief grunt and pull.
The remains of a dead sheep added to the atmosphere as the Gully drew you deeper in to its dank and slimy depths. Was there a mythical sheep gobbling Welsh dragon awaiting their next meal hiding in a bottomless crevasse? I hoped not as I picked my way through bones and fleece that had been washed down the gully bed.
Eventually we came to a halt with what I suspected was the door jamb pitch, according to legend it has only been climbed by the use of a snow bank or human pyramid! We took the steep groove on the right as instructed in the guide book, it was wet, greasy and moss covered. We decided to rope up and a few meters off the ground it soon became apparent that it was the sensible option.
It was as greasy and slimy as it looked but we both attacked it with confidence and an old school bluster that such a climb demands. At the top we moved leftwards back into the Gully and headed up towards the great chimney pitch, I couldn't help but feel the Gully somehow drawing us in, further and further into its vice like grip. It starts to get a claustrophobic feel and as the seriousness heightens you realise why such a climb has its legendary status. We paused at the bottom of the pitch to admire the view and take a few photos of Great Gully Pinnacle.
Stood at the bottom of the pitch belayed on some old and mossy tat we knew that we were fully committed, even getting down from this point would have been difficult and time consuming. I also didn't fancy being here in the dark, notions of Welsh dragons creeping back into my thoughts.
The chimney proved awkward and required the odd touch of aid to reach the sanctuary of the ledge and the exit from its grasp, back and footing was challenging with a rucksack and I ended up squirming inch by inch, forcing my body to move upwards. Eventually I stuck my arm deep in a crack and had a perfect mossy jam, which helped my exit and had me at the top, somewhat wetter and greener than when I had set off. Another short walk up the gully brought us to the depths of the cave pitch.
The pitch looked amazing and I was somewhat pleased and smug that it was Paul's lead, I did however offer much support by saying how greasy and wet it looked and what with its notorious reputation. His banter was returned 10 fold with the fact that if he was successful then I would have a hell of a traverse on the second, and he knew how I loathed traversing! Not sure who was the most apprehensive at this point! With a few grunts Paul attacked the short wall and shuffled his way up onto the ledge traverse, he wasn't comfortable with the slimy ledge but eventually found a hex placement that, in his words, you could hang a ship from. With a bomber placement he tiptoed to the chockstone at the end of the pitch and let out a whoop of relief. Bugger, I though as I snapped a few photos of his angelic looking silhouette, I have to follow him now!
Paul took a photo of me while I prepared to second from the depths of the cave pitch.
The wall was easier than it looked and I was soon straggled on the greasy ledge. I arrived at the bomber hex placement and fully agreed with Paul that it was indeed a fine placement, with that he proceeded to blind me with some flash photography. I muttered something about bloody traverses and whose idea was this, a slip now would have seen me swing out like a demented Tarzan! I gripped the hex in my mouth, just to stop me screaming if I did slip. After a few more slippery strides I reached the chockstone and felt the warmth of the sunshine. The chasm had released its grip and we rejoiced in a moment of satisfying glory.
The strain on my 510s was evident and I guessed that the sacrifice had been worth it, my feet were wet and I smelled like I'd bathed in pond water.
We sorted out all the gear out at the top and soon had the jetboil on and a brew in hand. Checking the time we had ticked the route off in three and a half hours which we thought was pretty good going. With a bit of luck we would have plenty of time to bag some chips and curry sauce in Bethesda on the way home.
After we packed up we headed down to find the bikes, with supplies exhausted it would be good to get to the water we had stashed earlier.
What a great idea to take the bikes, I headed off first to hold the first gate open to give Paul a clean run. You can just pick him out on the road, or at least see the smoke coming from his brakes!
Holding the gate to get a clean run.
Paul returning the gate opening duties as I pick up speed dodging the sheep and enjoying the easy way down.
We were soon at the car and I took what was left of my 510s off and washed my feet in the stream, I'd a fresh pair of socks and trainers in the car which felt great after several hours of wet Gully feet. We both congratulated each other on another classic day out and one I would recommend. Now where is that chippy....
And a final thought struck me on the way home and I looked over to Paul and said, "you do realise that we are going to have to repeat that day in full winter conditions don't you".....
© Copyright - Dave Clarke 2012
© Copyright Images - Blanchard Clarke Collection
This article was first published on the Dave Clarke Solo Blog
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